A Syrian-American journalist/civil rights lawyer interweaves narratives about her family with the history of modern Syria.
Malek (A Country Called Amreeka: Arab Roots, American Stories, 2009, etc.) moved to Damascus in the wake of the Arab Spring. Brimming with optimism, she intended to finish restoration work on her grandmother Salma’s house while helping Syria transition from “decades of stifling and corrupt dictatorship.” But by 2013, she had returned to the United States, disillusioned. In this book, the author narrates a multigenerational family saga that begins with a charismatic maternal great-grandfather but focuses mostly on Salma’s life. When a newlywed Salma moved into the house that Malek would finish restoring more than 60 years later, Syria was independent from Ottoman rule and French influence. Like Salma’s life, the country was “more potential and possibility than broken promises.” Both Damascus and Salma’s apartment building were home to people from all walks of Middle Eastern life: “Turks, Kurds, Arabs…all of different classes, some Christian and others Muslim.” By 1970, the year Hafez al-Assad staged the coup that would catapult him into power, Salma lost the rights to her apartment, which Malek’s parents would not be able to reclaim for three decades. By the time they did, Syria had become a place in which the government divided the people from each other through tactics intended to breed fear and distrust. After anti-government, pro-democracy protests and uprisings swept through Tunisia, Egypt, and other parts of the Arab world, Malek decided to return to the place where she had been conceived but from which she and her parents seemed destined to be separated. However, as an independent, unmarried American female, she felt unwelcome. Some of her relatives wanted her to leave because they feared for her safety and their own, while others saw her presence as a way to “curry favor with the [al Assad] regime.” Moving and insightful, Malek’s memoir combines sharp-eyed observations of Syrian politics, only occasionally overdone, with elegiac commentary on home, exile, and a bygone era.
Provocative, richly detailed reading.